Dogtooth, Giorgos Lanthimos, 96 mins, (18)
Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz, 96 mins, (15)

Todd Solondz's follow-up to 'Happiness' has been out-weirded by a Greek film that takes dysfunction to a new level

As Tolstoy wrote in 1878: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But that was 17 years before the invention of cinema, so he didn't know the half of it.

He would have been amazed and horrified to see the endless new twists on family agonies that film has devised. Until now, I'd have said that no one took the theme quite as far as American independent Todd Solondz, whose jaw-droppingly auda-cious Happiness (1998) is one of recent cinema's truly great provocations.

But Solondz may have met his match in a new Greek film called Dogtooth, which – as the title suggests – has a way of clamping itself on your attention and refusing to let go, however much it's hurting you. Even so, Solondz is on daring form with Life During Wartime – loosely speaking, a sequel to Happiness. That film was an unforgiving ensemble comedy about human weakness, in which the characters included three sisters, with three different modes of neurosis, and a bland suburban dad who was secretly a predatory paedophile. The scene at the end in which his young son asks him exactly what he does is the most devastatingly uncomfortable thing I've ever witnessed on screen.

Solondz's subsequent films Storytelling and Palindromes seemed a little incomplete by comparison, too formally elusive to hit home to the same extent. Life During Wartime, however, is both a reprise and something new.

It follows the Happiness characters, a few years on. Disgraced father Bill is newly out of prison, while his wife Trish has taken the children and moved to Florida; there she's met a new man (Michael Lerner), whom she falls for because he's so reassuringly normal. Meanwhile, Trish's uncrushably naive sister Joy is still having trouble with men, even the dead ones: one old lover returns from the grave to guilt-trip her.

Life During Wartime might seem a desperate move, an unnecessary follow-up to something impossible to follow; but the conceptually-minded Solondz is doing something quite singular here. The characters are the same but the cast is not, with very different actors stepping into the old roles. As Bill, Dylan Baker – so unsettlingly bland-seeming – is replaced by the brooding, hulking Ciaran Hinds, as though the character has been mentally, emotionally and physically transformed beyond recognition by his exposure. Joy, originally Jane Adams, is now Shirley Henderson, embodying a more fragile, other-worldly ditziness. As Joy's old beau Andy, now an angst-wracked revenant, Jon Lovitz's successor is Paul Reubens, aka disgraced kids' TV host Pee-Wee Herman. This is extremely provocative stunt casting for a film that muses on the possibility of forgiveness, and Reubens is poignantly troubling, his haggard face attesting to the effects of real-life trauma. And as the new Trish, Alison Janney makes a dazzlingly clueless queen of suburban complacency.

Life During Wartime may seem familiar: Solondz playfully admits as much when Joy experiences "just a little déjà vu". But by explicitly framing the film as a reworking of old material, Solondz messes with our expectations and erodes the certainties of character. There are new things too, notably Charlotte Rampling's self-proclaimed "monster" (inset below) who has a passing liaison with Bill: it's her most frightening performance yet, a study in the human heart as ravaged bombsite.

The family is the ultimate place of attrition, but parents and callous siblings aren't the only ones doing harm. The character who causes the profoundest damage is Trish's younger son Billy (a brave and compelling performance by Dylan Riley Snyder) who, after all, is doing nothing more than trying to understand the world in time for his barmitzvah. Solondz himself resembles the anxious suburban kids of his films. He too is always asking terrible questions about life and then, however dreadful the answers, pressing on and never stopping till he's unearthed even worse truths.

But even Solondz might be alarmed by the family in Dogtooth. A middle-aged couple have raised their children – now young adults – in absolute seclusion, feeding them bizarre lies about the world and about language. As far as the son and two daughters know, aeroplanes are tiny things that occasionally crash in the garden, cats are flesh-eating monsters and the sea is a sofa. The children entertain themselves with games of dare, while the son occasionally receives visits from Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard paid by Dad (Christos Stergioglou) to keep the boy sexually serviced.

The claustrophobic comic nightmare is all the more intense because everything is made to seem routine, almost normal. The family villa is a clean pleasant place, swimming pool and all, and the sunlit photography creates an idyllic mood – all the better to offset the dominant oppressiveness. Director/co-writer Giorgos Lanthimos keeps us guessing and explains virtually nothing. He also provokes with an edge of queasy sexiness that's all the more unsettling for being utterly perverse and downright awkward.

The extraordinarily disciplined acting (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni are the daughters) shows an ensemble united by a spirit of adventure, a commitment to follow this wild Theatre of Cruelty farce to whatever extremes it leads. You could mention Buñuel, Haneke, Atom Egoyan and Sweetie-era Jane Campion by way of comparison, but Dogtooth is pretty much one of a kind. Its view of family life is so outré that Lanthimos may have the edge on Life During Wartime – but he and Todd Solondz would have lots to talk about. Their folks should feel very proud of them.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney prepares to grapple with a couple of real sluggers: Iron Man 2 and Viking drama Valhalla Rising

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone